President Biden said in his speech to Congress last week that China is betting the United States cannot keep pace with autocracy in the 21st century. Russian Putin has basically said the same thing over and over. I say: “Play”. If there was ever a rallying cry for the U.S. team to take the field, that’s it. President Xi likes to play hardball, but it’s our game; it’s not ping-pong.
In 1976, I took the first group of American schoolchildren to the People’s Republic of China. They were graciously received. Chinese schoolchildren made calligraphy signs that said, “Zhong-guo, mei-guo, youyi…” roughly meaning “China and America share a friendship.” We danced, sang, played frisbee and basketball and yes… as part of the “ping pong diplomacy” of the Nixon era we played ping pong and they graciously let our kids win to their game.
It’s easy to be cynical about their intentions, as it was a major world empire for thousands of years that lost its way in the 19th century and desperately wanted a cultural and economic revival. But it is, in their minds, still “the Middle Empire,” a nation that is still capable of ruling the world. To shorten history, China has moved from the communist orthodoxy of Mao Zedong to the communism of Deng Xiaoping with capitalist incentives, to the retrogression of Xi Jinping both in terms of a more orthodox authoritarian communism and a fidelity to the idea that China is indeed the Middle Empire, the center of the universe.
China’s economic development since 1976 (Mao died in 1975) has been mind-boggling. China’s GDP is predicted to exceed that of the United States this decade. Success breeds success as they say, but also pride. Xi Jinping believes that China is on a roll and that its momentum is overwhelming. He and Vladimir Putin seriously believe that democracy is too slow, too chaotic, too polarized to function in a fast-paced, technology-driven 21st century, where change must be managed quickly and nimbly. They believe we are our own worst enemy, bickering with each other as lightning-fast changes rush past us in a frenzied blur. These autocrats like to refer to the deferred maintenance of our crumbling infrastructure as a prima-facie example of our inability to act even in our own self-interest.
The United States has come together in the past and I have no doubts that we will do it again, but it will take more than just shouting “USA, USA”. Our semiconductor production has grown from 37% of global production 25 years ago to 12% today. This is not a good thing in a world powered by computer chips and for a country striving to become a leader in 5G, artificial intelligence and supercomputing. But if we continue our game, here’s what makes the USA team great. This country is the center of innovation and entrepreneurship of the world. If you doubt this fact, follow the global investment money. America’s experience of the freedom to exercise creativity and ambitions has led to an invention and intellectual property that is the envy of much of the world. Why are Russia and China constantly trying to steal our intellectual property? Why are America’s best research universities the envy of the world? Because our capitalist democracy is a petri dish for invention and innovation.
I spoke of President Xi’s pride. Its return to state ownership and control of the industry, which has been the subject of much discussion among Chinese observers, is proof of its over-certainty and its need for control. Such control stifles ambition and innovation. There is an expression among Communist leaders that fits well with China’s imperial past. It is something like this: “The larger poppies are the first to be chopped.” This translates to “individualism must be suppressed for the good of society”.
The Chinese revolution was a revolution of the popular masses. Considering the time of the early 20th century, this meant the peasant masses of the nation. President Xi’s miscalculation, I believe, is that in a declining world, the Chinese people will want more individualism, not less.
Mao Zedong’s Selected Works are full of aphorisms, but the one that sets me apart, especially since Chairman Xi has an affinity for former Chairman Mao, is this: “Communism is not the love. Communism is a hammer that we use to crush our enemies.
Make no mistake, these autocrats want nothing more than to prove that democratic capitalism is obsolete and that authoritarianism is the only way through the erratic and mercurial 21st century. President Biden said in his speech to Congress on America’s Renewal: “We are competing with China and other countries to win the 21st century. We’re at an inflection point in history… We have to prove that democracy still works… Autocrats won’t win the future… It’s never, ever been a good bet against America.
I say without reservation, “Game on”. It’s time for the American team to strengthen themselves and prove that the American experience is the inspiration for the future and that imperial authoritarianism is nothing more than the ambitious hope of desperate autocrats.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired chairman of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, author, and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.
Bill Sims Contributing Columnist
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